Read below Jack Majewski speaking to Sergio Scariolo, the current Head Coach of the Spanish National Team and Armani Jeans Milano.
JM: Let’s start from probably the most memorable point in your career, Poland 2009. The performance of your team in the second part of the tournament can only be compared to the remarkable Yugoslavian team from 1989 and 1991. How did you manage to reach such a harmony within your team?
SS: Actually it wasn’t easy at all. At the beginning we had a lot of injuries and we couldn’t find a right rhythm and intensity both offensively and defensively. We had to find extra strengths to overcome these problems, the process of solving these issues actually made us much stronger. The desire to overcame the frustrations caused by numerous injuries bonded us together and gave us an unbelievable desire to succeed. These players went through a really difficult time together which gave them experience of how to act in very difficult situations which later translated into success on the basketball court.
JM: You travelled to Turkey in 2010 as one of the hot favourites of the tournament, yet your result did not match expectation. Pau’s absence was obviously one of the reasons. Were there any other factors contributing to the not so convincing performance?
SS: Well, you need to be realistic with your goals when you are missing such key competitors like Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon altogether and to the big extent also Sergio Llul. Our goal was to qualify for the semi-finals and fight for the medals. We were actually quite close to achieving just that. In basketball there is such a fine line between failure and success. In our case it was Teodosic’s shot from 9 metres in the dying seconds of our game against Serbia, it is really difficult to defend such a play. That of course doesn’t mean that we as a team couldn’t do things better. My biggest regret is that we lost our intensity on defence.
JM: One of the reasons why you didn’t accept the coaching position with the Spanish National team in 2006 was the fact that you wanted a longer contract and opportunity to make a real impact on the team. Now you are in the position when you can work with this group of players for a prolonged period of time. Having already won the European championship in your first year, what would be your ultimate goal by the end of your term with the Spanish National team?
SS: When I took over the Spanish national team we had two quite clearly defined goals. The first was to win the European Championship which Spain was pursuing in vain for years. We desperately wanted to remove the stigma of being perennial underachievers, the team which always fails when the stakes are really high. Winning Euro 2009 was extremely important for us. The second goal is to perform successfully in London 2012. By performing successfully, I mean winning medals. We have achieved our first goal and we are now moving our focus to achieving success in London. However before that will happen we have to qualify and perform successfully in the European Championships in Lithuania
JM: That leads nicely to my next question about your aspirations in Lithuania. I know that results of friendly games are notoriously unreliable, but your team seems to be in quite formidable form. You crushed France and Bulgaria, split results against Lithuania and convincingly beat Slovenia. What is your goal for the European Championships?
SS: Our target in the Championship is to win outright promotion to the Olympic tournament in London. The problem is that only two finalists will qualify to the Olympic tournament and I see at least eight teams perfectly capable of doing just that. This year’s European Championship will be one of the most fiercely contested tournaments in many years. Look at the number of NBA players participating in it. It will be extremely difficult to get to the final and we need to be absolutely ready for a long and gruelling competition.
JM: How would you compare your current group with the team from 2009? The core of the group remains the same. However, you have lost some experienced and influential players like Jorge Carbajosa, Raul Lopez and Carlos Cabezas. But, on other hand you must be excited that that Jose Calderon is back, Victor Sada had a fantastic season with Barca and Serge Ibaka has finally been granted Spanish citizenship.
SS: I would say it is a rather natural process when some of the players from the “golden generation” have retired from international duty and we have plenty of younger players relentlessly pushing for their place in the national squad. What is important for me is the fact that this process is not affecting the quality of the team. We prefer a controlled evolution not a revolution, we have been very successful in achieving that recently. In the last 4 years the average age of our national team remains around 26 years old which is optimal. Our situation is of course greatly helped by a great system which produces a big number of very young and talented players. Our U-18 team just became European Champions.
JM: After a period of sabbatical you are returning to coaching on a club level again with Armani Jeans Milano. Was this decision influenced by a return to your spiritual roots in Italy or the challenge of building Milano into a true European powerhouse, restoring it to its former status? It used to be a cult team where players like Bob McAdoo, Dino Meneghin, Mike D’Antoni and Dejan Bodiroga plied their trade.
SS: This is a very complex and difficult challenge. As you said this is a club with a great tradition but after a period of European glory there was quite a prolonged time when the club really struggled. Steady improvement began 3 years ago when Armani bought the club and injected quite a lot of money into the team. Hopefully within the next 3 years we would be able see the results of these investments and reinvigorate interest in basketball in the city of Milan. That of course is not easy; Milan like all other major metropolies has so much to offer that only a product of the highest standard catches the public’s attention. So our product must be of a very high quality to allow us to bring basketball where it used to be in this city.
JM: In a conversation with you a couple years ago in London about a possible move to Milano you discussed turning them down as they weren’t prepared to move as quickly as you wanted in terms of building a team ready to challenge straight away in Europe. Is Armani now in this position?
SS: Well, in Italy this is a good time for us to make a strong move. Sienna is very strong and there are a couple teams with reasonable budgets like Cantu, but certainly on the domestic scene we can be very successful this season. Obviously there is a completely different challenge in Euroleague where we were drawn into a very difficult group with Efes Pilsen, Partizan, Real Madrid and probably Khimki [depending on qualification tournament].We have to reach our full potential very quickly and be ready for very tough games right from the beginning of the season.
JM: Your recent signings are experienced players in their thirties like Drew Nicholas, Antonis Fotsis, Omar Cook or players like Mali Hairston who has been instrumental in orchestrating Montepachi’s success last season. Is your policy of signing players with a winning pedigree a recipe for an instant success?
SS: I’m not sure that a thing like instant success really exists. You always have to work really hard to achieve success. Signing experienced players who know how to win trophies on the highest level is extremely important. Euroleague starts a couple of weeks after the European Championship so we will have a very short period to get ready. Of course we have to also think about fatigue and possible injuries of players returning from the European Championship. The Italian season is quite long, over thirty games so we will have time to readjust. Euroleague however doesn’t allow us any room for manoeuvre. There are ten extremely important games and if we are not ready we will be out by Christmas. Having said that we also need to be realistic and patient. Nothing can be achieved overnight and bringing even the most experienced players will not change that. We simply must spend time together making sure that all players understand their roles and what is expected from them
JM. Since Future Stars deals mainly with young players from all-over Europe, let’s spend some time talking about the poster boy of young European Basketball,-Ricky Rubio. The move to the Timbervolves has finally happened and depending on developments with the lockout he will make his debut in the NBA. The Timberwolves finished with the worst record in the league last season, and their history of bad lottery luck does not bode very well for the future. Is that a right move for him? How will his move to the NBA affect his connection with the rest of the National team?
SS: It is notoriously difficult to decide when is the right time to make such a move. No matter what we think about the improvement of European basketball, there is still a significant difference in the level between Europe and the NBA. There is no question that Ricky possesses all the attributes necessary to make him successful in this league, that was never in doubt. The real problem is that he will need the right group of people to play with and right coaching staff to help him with his adaptation process. Every player will need some time to adapt to the demands of the NBA, young players will require an even longer period. The lockout definitely doesn’t improve the situation, because we expect a very short season with a miniscule pre-season. He will not have the comfort of the customary month long preparation, so his position will be really tricky. I wish him all the best and he really deserves success there, but all parties need to be really patient in this situation and can’t expect an instant success. I don’t see however how his move to the NBA would affect his relationship and understanding with the rest of the squad. That will remain at the same level as before
JM: Your contact with UK basketball has become quite frequent. You visited England twice recently while lecturing at Future Stars. You also had a very tricky encounter with the GB team in Eurobasket 2009 and see some leading GB players on a weekly basis playing in the ACB. What in your opinion prevents England from fully flourishing on the European scene?
SS: It is a very difficult question to answer for someone who is a complete outsider to the UK basketball scene. What I can however categorically say is the fact that all recognised European powerhouses have a very strong domestic competition. It is impossible to develop a strong basketball culture in a country without a strong league. That is a factor which generates constant interest from media, fans and sponsors. So that must be one of the reasons. I’m really not in the position to deliver a more detailed verdict on other reasons stopping the UK from reaching their full potential. Having said that I must say that in the recent years England have made a very significant progress on the international scene. They had a very competitive team in 2009 and this year they will be even stronger thanks to the presence of Luol Deng.